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South Jordan Journal

bristles against proposed Rocky Mountain Power 114000 South utility upgrade

Feb 19, 2019 04:17PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

South Jordan residents stand and raise hands, indicating their support for neighbor Jana Fullmer, who is actively protesting Rocky Mountain Power’s planned upgrade to power lines and poles along and by 11400 South. The Feb. 6 South Jordan City Council meeting was “SRO” – or Standing Room Only. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

The Feb. 6 South Jordan City Council meeting was SRO.

SRO as in “Standing-Room Only.” The topic? Continuing public comment on significantly taller, significantly higher voltage and overall “footprint” upgrades to power lines and poles that were in place prior to the neighborhoods vigorously challenging their being upgraded.

Midway through the meeting, the night before the February snow that shut much of the county down, a handful of South Jordan residents provided public comments to the South Jordan City Council with their concerns. Following the public comment and a meeting break, approximately 95 percent of the audience departed the council chambers. A few dozen neighborhood constituents lingered in the lobby, holding discussions among themselves and with  South Jordan City Attorney Ryan Loose. 

All of it part of a months-old campaign to influence, delay, significantly modify, if not entirely thwart the “South Jordan-to-Draper Transmission Upgrade” plan by Rocky Mountain Power to increase power for south valley residents by upgrading existing power poles and lines currently on South Jordan properties. The plan is what RMP considers “most preferable” to meet energy demands of not just South Jordan, but of the whole south valley power grid.

“Everyone feels they do what is best for the city of South Jordan," said Mayor Dawn Ramsey at the initiation of the council meeting, in anticipation of community concerns and the council’s jurisdictional limitations in what at this point is a planning commission matter.

Multiple sides of the issue

Residents expressed concern, attempting to elevate public opinion to a level to quash Rocky Mountain Power’s near-term application for a conditional use permit to replace existing wooden poles and their power lines with an above-ground, significantly taller, higher-voltage upgrade.

The conditional use permit request is slotted for review by the South Jordan Planning Commission. No date had yet been set at press deadline.

South Jordan residents see the upgrade as compromising their neighborhood in terms of enjoyment, desirability and ultimate value. It seemed a slightly different strategy than initial health-related concerns, along with aesthetics and property values, raised to RMP during summer and throughout the fall of 2018.

RMP sees the matter as a totally transparent growth issue fully vetted through the planning process, including significant, early, and ongoing communications with South Jordan residents themselves. 

City Attorney Ryan Loose is surrounded by residents during a city council break. Residents met before and after the public comment section of the meeting to discuss strategy. It is rumored that they are hiring an attorney and possibly forming an LLC to continue challenging Rocky Mountain Power’s Conditional Use Permit. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

The southwest portion of the Salt Lake Valley has grown 70 percent since RMP sponsored a countywide power-planning project in 2010. South Jordan was represented in that planning session, along with constituents across the county and state. 

“The South Jordan-to-Draper Transmission Upgrade,” while not meeting all possible desirable criteria, is what RMP considers “most preferable” and meets RMP’s priority of upgrading existing facilities before building new facilities.

According to RMP, any other alignment between the two power substations would impact residents and businesses who did not purchase properties within an existing line and existing utility easement. 

RMP further notes it does not own land South Jordan residents have proposed accessing, and that, unlike communities such as downtown Salt Lake City, community funding to the tune of multiple millions is not available to bury the lines. Nor is there a developer to cover the burden of the cost, which is how new communities usually offset the cost of what many consider to be more aesthetically pleasing buried power lines, versus above-ground pole-and-wire schemes.

South Jordan: Between a rock and a hard place

Ramsey, later, in an interview with South Jordan Journal, indicated, “We understand that our residents are concerned. The city is between a rock and a hard place. There isn’t anything more that the city council can do. We do not have oversight.”

The RMP upgrade plan is said to directly impact 16 homes with 21 existing power poles and lines, as well as an additional 450 homes located within 325 feet of the wire easement. There will be no additional poles added, and not every pole will be the same, but all will be replaced as will the wires, resulting in a voltage upgrade from the current 46kV (kilovolt) to 138kV. Pole heights will increase between two to 40 feet, with 30 feet being the mean change.

The homes lie north and south of 11400 South and along 11400 South itself.

Neighborhood members speak up 

Some residents sought to engage South Jordan as an advocate in halting the upgrade. Others seemed to cast blame at the city for what they surmised was providing incorrect plat information to appropriately inform home owners of ultimate plans for their homes.

“[We are] a family-oriented community with an unwillingness to compromise,” said Cami Hodlmair. Hodlmair expressed concern about what she deemed would be “statistically significant declines in property value from power lines.” Hodlmair’s research indicated a loss of nearly $500,000 in value for homes “directly under,” or within 150 feet of the power lines.

South Jordan resident Paula Gordon indicated that the power-line upgrade would have sweeping impact, with property owners’ ability to refinance or be able to secure buyer financing being compromised, with properties losing stature with lending institutions such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and VA financing.

Hodlmair’s and Gordon’s comments seem to contrast RMP-cited research from hired-gun estimation experts, whose Salt Lake County studies did not show significant property value loss due to above-ground power lines in communities.

However, residents cast doubt on that study. Lyman Moulton indicated that experts quoted in a peer-reviewed academic article and other documents by RMP did not correctly address considerations of right-of-way easements in their valuations.

Moulton further expressed frustration with homeowners having relied on plat maps he says were “signed and endorsed by South Jordan” yet neglected to show easements pre-existing the plat maps.        “Either this body has not done due diligence on plat mats signed and endorsed by the city, or Rocky Mountain Power has overstated,” he said.

The final resident providing comment, Jana Fullmer, seemed to hold out for the possibility of further negotiation or compromise. Fullmer has been steadfast in protesting the plan, previously speaking to the South Jordan Planning Commission in October, indicating the power-line easement on the plat map showing a 10-foot easement versus a much larger 60-foot easement to support the power upgrade.

Rocky Mountain Power responds

While not officially on the agenda for the meeting, RMP Marketing and Communication Manager Spencer Hall indicated the locales have been designated as a powerline corridor for decades, even before the development of the residential neighborhood and certainly earlier than the 2010 countywide planning session which Rocky Mountain Power proactively sponsored, where the city of South Jordan was represented. “Every resident opposing this line purchased a home with a pole in the yard or lines overhead,” states an email sent to South Jourdan Journal by RMP.

“The goal is to integrate local long-term development plans with electrical network plans to ensure adequate capacity for Salt Lake County communities to grow,” is verbiage from the plan, describing the intent of the utility.

RMP is attempting to fulfill its charter for the state as a low-cost, safe source of power. RMP points out its power to the state is priced the 12th lowest nationally, according to the U.S. Energy Information Admiration, and develops projects that meet or exceed the National Electric Safety Code, as well as adhering to all state and local requirements.

As to the matter of higher-voltage power-line safety, RMP shared information with the South Jordan Journal that may intuitively not sound right: RMP indicates findings from 1,000-plus scientific and public health experts that show
exposure to electromagnetic fields are not a hazard to human health. RMP cites data that show magnetic fields from household appliances and home wiring are stronger than magnetic fields associated with power lines and substations.

Ramsey and Loose repeatedly advised meeting attendees that the city council is not the governing body influencing the utility’s project. The council represents more of a sounding board for residents to express their concerns and be heard. The governing body reviewing RMP’s Conditional Use Permit to be able to initiate the power line upgrades is the responsibility of the South Jordan Planning Commission. City officials needed to take care not to bias information being presented to the commission, said Loose.

A tale of two — and more — cities’ power needs vs. neighborhood values

It is a tale of residents’ desires to protect their property values, aesthetics and health factors squaring off against Rocky Mountain Power’s commitment to provide “safe, reliable and efficient energy” to meet growth not just in South Jordan, but in south valley, and the entire, interconnected power grid of at least Salt Lake County, if not beyond.

By the time residents flooded the Feb. 6 South Jordan City Council meeting, however, the tale seemed to already be on its way to the printer. Ramsey and council members walked the line of responding to community pressures and addressing concerns while also honoring jurisdictional responsibility and ultimately securing the necessary infrastructure to support South Jordan’s metamorphosis from an agrarian town to a booming bedroom community and even technology hub.

“Uncharted territory” is how Loose described any options the city may have to intervene on behalf of the neighborhood. 

Loose explained to Ramsey, the council at large, and all in attendance that RMP is now in the queue to be reviewed by the planning commission. If the planning commission were to attempt to delay the project, RMP has state-granted statutory rights to invoke a “Rip Cord” option to force construction. 

RMP indicated to the South Jordan Journal that they do not want to see the situation devolve to that, and cited the utility’s over-the-top commitment to working with the city at large, the even larger county, and the individual home owners impacted most by the planned project.

‘Classic problem in planning’

“This is a classic problem in planning,” said Ted Knowlton, deputy director for the Wasatch Regional Council and president of the Utah Chapter of the American Planning Association. “There are things that a community must have, and power is one of them. It was a big step forward for Rocky Mountain Power to be transparent and involve counties in the planning process.” Knowlton’s firm, the Planning Center, was contracted by RMP in 2010 to conduct the statewide planning process which included the city of South Jordan. The plan clearly designated the line for upgrade.

In a follow-up interview with South Jordan Journal, Loose indicated it is rare for a planning commission to veto such a conditional use permit. Loose said he had not experienced such a veto in 13 years of municipal service. That said, "From an evidentiary standpoint, people can bring information to planning commission.” He elaborated, “Let them do their job. It is the Planning Commission’s purview.”

If the project advances through the South Jordan Planning Commission and is not litigated or mediated, the transmission upgrade is set to begin this spring, and aims to be in place by summer 2020 to satisfy what RMP states as “peak summer usage.”